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Home > Research Articles > Afluent Kids: Both Pressured And Ignored

United Press International

Saturday, September 21, 2002

Suniya S. Luthar, a professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia's Teacher's College, had first studied an older cohort of suburban high school students as a control group to compare with inner-city youth. The suburban 10th graders had significantly higher levels of every kind of substance use -- cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana, and hard drugs -- than did their inner-city counterparts.

"We also found significantly higher levels of anxiety," she told United Press International in a phone interview. And suburban girls exhibited signs of clinical depression at rates three times higher than "a normative sample" of girls of the same age throughout the country. In general, suburban boys who used substances were more popular and enjoyed higher peer status. Luther's findings were published in 1999 in Volume 11 of the journal Development and Psychopathology.

To determine whether these were suburban adolescent phenomena or general suburban phenomena, Luthar and her colleague Bronwyn E. Becker studied a cohort of 302 students in sixth and seventh grades from an affluent Northeastern community where the median family income in the year 2000 was almost $102,000. The 1999 national median income was $40,816, according to the U.S. Census.

"At the sixth-grade level, everything still seems to be pretty much fine," Luthar said. "There's no sign of girls or boys being unusually troubled in any regard."

But problems began to show among seventh-graders, whose average age was 13. "Again we found a higher rate of clinically significant depressive problems among the girls," the psychologist said. "And for boys we found the same pattern of substance use that we had seen in the high school kids. Once again, peers seemed to approve of substance use."

The researchers found support for two possible causes for these problems: achievement pressures and isolation from parents.

Feelings of emotional closeness derive from things as simple as sufficient downtime to relax with families, Luthar said. "Upwardly mobile, affluent families place great emphasis on the achievements of children as well as parents, including multiple extracurricular activities. Between the children's busy schedules and the parents' busy professional schedules, very often what you find is that youngsters do not have enough time to sit down and have a calm and relaxing evening with their parents."

Luthar and Becker's findings will be published in the October issue of Child Development.

In their article they note that suburban parents' pressures on children to achieve can involve "maladaptive perfectionism," which they define as not merely striving for high and realistic goals but as "excessive investment in accomplishment and need to avoid failure." Also, "there is often a ubiquitous emphasis on ensuring that children secure admission to stellar colleges," they write.

"The other thing that can be implicated is lack of adult after-school supervision," Luthar told UPI. "We suspected that a number of these 12- and 13-year-olds were left alone after school hours on a regular basis. ... This is not just mother-absent but also nanny-absent."

A fair number of seventh-graders come home to an empty house or hang out around the mall with their friends or siblings, Luthar said. "Among these youth, it's not a lack of financial resources that prevents child care. In a number of instances, the parents seem to feel that this promotes self-sufficiency. The other factor seems to be that they feel their neighborhoods are so safe that there really isn't a threat to their children. But there is no neighborhood however pristine that is going to make up for the lack of adults being around to watch what children are doing."

Boys were more likely than girls to be unsupervised after school, but girls who were unsupervised were more likely to exhibit behavioral problems.

The psychologist was asked if kids feel more stress when adults are not there to supervise them.

"Yes," she said, "and they have more opportunities to indulge in behaviors that adults would normally stop. Mom and dad's drinks cabinet is accessible, and the medicine cabinet."

Seventh grade is a critical period, Luthar said. At 13, kids start formulating their value systems, their identities, and thinking about what they will pursue in life.

The researchers found that girls who are close to their mothers are at a far lower risk for depression. Both girls and boys are helped more by closeness to mothers than closeness to fathers. Children close to their mothers are least likely to smoke or use drugs and alcohol or to show symptoms of distress. "It makes more of a difference for the overall well-being of girls than of boys," Luthar said.

However, girls who indicated a close relationship with their fathers were more likely to have high academic grades.

Copyright 2002 by United Press International.